America’s Best Idea. It’s the current tagline for the National Park System, and I couldn’t agree more with the sentiment. Since the establishment of Yellowstone as the first official National Park, the Park System has grown to include not merely large preserved areas of natural land, but also historic sites and community areas. Currently, the National Park Service administers nearly 400 sites across the country.
The great thing about National Parks, particularly for those of us who love to hike and camp, is that they are generally well-staffed and run. Every park ranger I have met while touring through the parks has been friendly, enthusiastic, informative, and helpful. I shared stories with a ranger on the Bright Angel Trail in the Grand Canyon, learned about rock microbes from a ranger at Wind Caves in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and watched a bunch of rangers get very excited about the sighting of a bird thought to have left the area for good in Zion National Park.
What this all means, aside from the obvious fact that I think rangers are cool people, is that unlike many nature areas, the National Parks provide a way for solo hikers to get information and advice about the trails they choose from people who know what they’re talking about.
In addition to having great resources for information, National Park campsites tend to be well-populated and therefore safer for solo travelers, and the trails tend to be well-maintained and traversed, allowing you to choose trails that make it likely you’ll encounter other people at some point during your journey (again, making your solo hiking safer).
Besides, by and large, the National Parks are incredibly gorgeous. The landscapes, the views from atop mountains and canyons, the wildlife…there’s really no better place to experience it all in an accessible manner.
Over time, I’ll post about individual parks/campsites/trails. For now, here are some of my favorite parks (and this is nothing against those I don’t mention…most likely it just means I haven’t been there!):
- Zion National Park, Utah
- Bryce Canyon, Utah
- Arches, Utah
- Yellowstone, WY
- Grand Canyon, AZ
- Wind Caves, SD
- Badlands National Park, SD
- Great Smoky Mountains, TN/NC
- Shenandoah National Park, VA
PS – Those photos? I took them. While hiking solo.
Don’t forget to check out “National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” a six-episode series by Ken Burns that airs on September 27, 2009 on PBS.
(c) Her Side of the Mountain, 2009.